How to avoid dangerous waters - a post on safeguarding Wardley Mapping.


Today, I had an excellent discussion about the weaknesses of Wardley Mapping and illusions it may be selling to its adepts. The most significant accusation I have heard is that mapping does not take into the account complexity, and therefore it is unsuitable for building strategies in a highly unpredictable environment. And I have to admit - such accusation is not without merit. I am guilty of thinking that mapping is a crystal ball. When I started my adventure with mapping, I had no clue about complexity and uncertainty, so I just assumed Wardley Mapping offered me a peek into the future, and I was quite surprised each time people did not share my enthusiasm to mapping.


This is also why I have decided to write this post - to prevent others from doing my mistakes, and to show how my thinking evolved and where it is right now.


Over time, I learned that the world is too big to map it. Seemingly small interactions far beyond what I considered my environment could influence my situation in ways I couldn't anticipate. When I learned about unintended consequences, I had to learn how to live with the awareness that all of my plans can fail quite spectacularly and that there is nothing I could do about it (it is not actually "nothing", but let's leave it for another post).


#WardleyMapping is not a crystall ball. You should not trust your map unless it is proven.


However, I have realised that what mapping does really well is building shared situational awareness, the understanding of your immediate environment and things that you do control. Through analysis of delivered value and chain of dependencies, you can investigate relationships between components and your own assumptions, and then play what-if games. The purpose of those games is not to pick up the best move and jump on it. No, that would be unreasonable because of uncertainty and everything that you do not know.


The purpose of what-if games is to find risks and opportunities, to identify areas about which you would like to learn more before playing va banque. In other words, you want to figure out where to experiment, because only experimentation can prove you actually understand environment around you.

Now, experiments can introduce unwanted side effects, too. I have learned the phrase "small experiments" is often used in the context of being able to cope with the consequences, but, unfortunately, not all small experiments are safe, and not all things can be experimented upon.


For example, you cannot experiment about selling your company and investing in some other market. You sell it or not, you cannot sell "a little bit". Sometimes, the results of the experimentation are not trustworthy. And sometimes, experiments can establish a dangerous precedence that is very difficult to reverse (drugs in real life).


The only way forward with the experiments is to make them safe to fail, not small, and there will be small experiements that are not safe. If you cannot make an experiment safe to fail, you do not experiment. And if you cannot experiment, nor accept all-in investment, you move to the next opportunity.


It looks like there is much more knowledge required to make a jump from a map to a strategy than I initially anticipated. And while mapping does not tell you the future, together with other bits of knowledge, such as complexity science, it allows you to welcome it.

What I have realised it druing writing this post is that I safeguared the process of mapping. My advocated lack of trust and borrowed experimentational approach are supposed to reduce chances of mistakes leading to a significant loss.


How do you safeguard your mapping process?


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